Abstraction: different interpretations

Work in Progress
foam abstraction, Waitpinga

This exhibition features the photography of Adam Dutkiewicz and Gary Sauer-Thompson. The work in the exhibition builds on the two earlier abstraction exhibitions held at the Centre of Creative Photography in Adelaide, South Australian (2016 and 2017); the abstraction tradition constructed in the Abstract Photography book published by Moon Arrow Press in 2016; and Gary’s minor photography in his abstraction blog.

There is confusion about what counts as abstraction in photography: art theorists class very different kinds of photographs as abstract, whilst the common or orthodox view of photography, backed by analytic aesthetics, if true, causes us to doubt the very possibility of abstraction and photography.

The exhibition breaks with the modernist interpretation of abstraction as understood by the art historical narratives of modern art. Breaks in the sense of becoming aware of different interpretations of abstraction to Clement Greenberg’s formalist modernist interpretation of abstraction and a return to the root form of abstraction. To abstract means to draw away or remove (something from something else).

We need to start this rethinking because the photographic image has become the networked digital image in informational capitalism. Rubinstein, Golding and Fisher in their Introduction to their On the Verge of Photography: Imaging Beyond Representation (p.9) describe the networked digital image this way:

In today’s visual regime an image can be uploaded to someone’s Facebook stream in the morning, “liked” and tagged at various points of the network and by the evening re-emerge as part of diverse and varied series, search results and image-sets that have no linear connection with the event of the original upload: it is trending on twitter, it is siphoned into image mashups, remixed into palimpsets and aggregated with other bits of information to form new images, texts and sounds, all of the time drawing from an infinite stream of computer data.

Their main argument is that the digital-born image is composed of a field of data that has the appearance of an analogue photograph only due to convention. As data, images are no longer defined by their mode of recording or their geometric construction but by the algorithmic structure which gives them their particular appearance.

For computers digital photographs are calculable information that is continually combined and recombined with other information circulating on the network to produce new and diverse connections. In the process the calculable information changes from being a discrete unit to a fluid entity characterised by instantaneity, simultaneity, multiplicity and the indeterminacy that is the result of the agency of code itself. Against the traditional conception of photography as a two-dimensional reflection of objects that exist in the real world (the reflective surface of mirror resembling/reflecting/depicting whatever is placed in front of it) the photographic image becomes  movement and flow.

This is a different world to that of the canonical art histories of the 20th century painting that played the leading role  in the development of modernism in the other arts bringing with it its tendency to abstraction. Abstraction as the privileged non-conceptual term in modernism was premised on several assumptions: a rejection of representation and realism, the avant garde’s turn to non-figurative abstraction, a concentration on the act of painting itself, a Euro-American perspective, and the equation of this “universalist” canon with Western values and works. Freeing painting from literature becomes painting about painting — painting in concentrates on its own sphere of materials and signification becomes self-reflexive.

We need to rethink photographic abstraction in a world of the networked digital image that begin their life as binary data, developed algorithmically and are driven to various points across the network not as individual pictures but as packets of data. These packets of data that proliferate and self-replicate appear as conventional analogue photographs that are approached visually.

We live amidst a world of abstractions: money, commodity, society, state, capital, market, finance, community, family, individual, freedom, private property, human rights, etc etc. A global capitalist society in modernity has a culture of abstractions that we live within in our everyday lives. Abstractions, such as the commodity form, take on a real existence and operate concretely in capitalist society.

The troubling thing is that in societies based on generalized exchange, certain kinds of abstraction (money or finance being the most famous example) are in fact real or actual in a manner that does not correspond to the ontology of empirical realism that governs ordinary- language use of the term ‘real’. Consequently, there is the disjunction between the actually very ‘real’ economy of finance capital and everyday individual perceptions of the ‘real’ economy. Though the most real–finance– appears unreal these actual abstractions are the medium of social experience in capitalist modernities.

We live within the abstraction of social relations that is characteristic of societies based on relations of generalised exchange, where there is no necessary relation between use-value and exchange-value. In these societies exchange is made possible by the abstraction of value from use. Might not the digital image (photography is within the generic field of the digital image) be an equivalent visual form of the infinity of exchange  made possible by the abstraction of value from use?

There is the infinite potentiality of digitalized data to generate an in-principle-infinite multiplicity of forms of visualizations

Gary Sauer-Thompson is a photographer and blogger based in Encounter Bay on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. Gary  has an M.Com in economics (Canterbury University, New Zealand), studied photography at the Photography Images College in South Melbourne, and has a PhD in Philosophy (from Flinders University of South Australia). He has published a number of books and he exhibits regularly. He has worked as an economist, a tramways conductor, an academic, and a political and policy advisor.

Wellington, New Zealand, 2020 photo by Sally Jackman

Gary left full-time paid work in Canberra in 2011 to become a independent photographer. He runs the poodlewalks and Mallee Routes websites, which explore different approaches to contemporary photography.

Adam Dutkiewicz is an art historian, abstract painter and photographer based in Adelaide. He comes from a family of artists, with two uncles and his father, as well as a brother and sister, all creative practitioners. He has a PhD from the South Australian School of Art, hisdissertation a history of abstract painting in Australia.

His books include:

A Matter of Mind: an Introduction to the Art of Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz (2006);

Alexander Sádlo: Experimental Journey (2007), with Gaynor Sádlo;

Brian Claridge: Architect of Light and Space (2008);

The Birth of Love: Artist brothers Dusan and Voitre Marek (2008) editor & compiler, text by Stephen Mould;

Ludwik Dutkiewicz: Adventures in Art (2009);

Malcolm Carbins: Paintings & Drawings 1947−2002 (2010), with Michele Klik;

Lidia Groblicka; Suburban Iconographer (2010);

The Path to Salt: a photographic essay on the Cheetham salt fields, Dry Creek (2012);

Francis Roy Thompson: Painter of Grace & Rebellion (2014);

Abstract Photography: Re-evaluating Visual Poetics (2016), with Gary Sauer-Thompson;

A Visual History: The Royal South Australian Society of Arts 1856-2016, vol. 1 (2016), editor & compiler;

A Visual History: The Royal South Australian Society of Arts 1856-2016, vol. 2 (2017), editor & compiler;

Andrew Steiner: Sculpting Essence (2018), with Andrew Steiner et al;

Adelaide Art Photographers c.1970-2000 (2019), with Gary Sauer-Thompson.

In 2008-09 he was Nexus Writer-in-Resident, and curated the exhibition Brothers in Arts: Works by Wladyslaw and Ludwik Dutkiewicz and most recently prepared a two-pronged retrospective exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of his father, Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz, the first at Murray Bridge Regional Gallery and a follow-up in the city at Royal SA Society of Arts. He has also curated exhibitions for the Hilton International Hotel, Adelaide Town Hall, PolArt t Festival Centre, and the Royal SA Society of Arts, where he was President from 1992−94 and for whom he is now Historian. He has exhibited his own art in Adelaide and Sydney, and worked as an art critic, writer and collections officer, and in recent years has tutored at the Schools of Art and Communications, University of South Australia.

I have painted in oils since my mid teens in the early 1970s, but I really started seriously after leaving school at the end of 1973. I received a little training in my mid-20s, at the Teachers’ College at Magill, now part of University of South Australia, where I did drawing, painting and printmaking electives as part of my Communications degree. By the time I finished studies at Magill I’d already painted for a decade, experimenting for a while with surrealism but always maintaining an interest in various sorts of abstract painting in oils and acrylics.

In the late 1990s I painted a number of constructivist works and other quite complicated paintings that responded to early – mid 20th century abstract styles, and produced a series of handpainted digital works based on some recent drawings, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. The latter helped me to start to learn more about Photoshop and similar software. 

I held a very successful exhibition of oil and acrylic paintings at Light Gallery in 2003, with work done following my PhD on post-war Australian abstract painting. In the early-mid 2000s I began working with metallic oil paints and broken grids. I kept simplifying my processes, and from around 2010 produced a number of reasonably busy, but mostly flat, acrylic paintings and some tachiste palette-knife driven oils.

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